Power play

By Steve Woodward

What was not heard during Richard Hudson’s congressional hearing on energy security echoed the loudest: a path forward to protect grid infrastructure.

Pinehurst’s Village Hall was humming June 16, 2023, as an array of political power brokers assembled to see a microcosm of Washington sausage-making on public display. The U.S. House sub-committee on Energy and Commerce, co-chaired by Moore County’s congressman Hudson, did not disappoint.

Attendees witnessed firsthand what lawmakers sit through interminably on Capitol Hill week after week. They ask questions. The panelists recite scripted responses. At the end, everyone agrees there is more work to be done. Everyone regrets that regulations and funding shortages deter the work.

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson (third from left) was joined by House committee members on June 16, 2023, during a hearing in Pinehurst.

Experts on North Carolina’s electric power grid called as witnesses instead subjected the audience to a series of rolling information brown outs. There was more tap dancing than you’d expect to find in an old Fred Astaire film. Expressions of concern proliferated; while assurances of future proactivity flickered like lamps during a thunderstorm.

Our power grid is more vulnerable than ever. Almost no actionable game planning resulted from Moore County’s December 3, 2022, blackout caused by targeted shootings of two sub-stations. Law enforcement and state emergency response personnel are no closer to identifying the perpetrators of a deliberate attack that plunged 45,000 households into darkness.

One of the most memorable exchanges cast light on the hubris at the core of Duke Energy’s culture. Another, more humorous theorem, put forth solar energy as the last best hope for keeping our lights on when bad actors attack the grid. If you guessed that came out of the mouth of a college professor you would be right.

Committee member Gary Palmer, a Republican representing Alabama’s sixth congressional district, asked Duke Energy managing director Mark Aysta about a directive issued November 30, 2022, by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, warning that the United States “remains in a heightened threat environment”. The bulletin specifically mentioned “U.S. critical infrastructure” and 15 occasions on which energy sabotage was threatened.

Aysta, who heads Duke’s enterprise security operations across seven states, affirmed that the organization received the DHS bulletin, adding, “We receive these routinely.”

Palmer countered: “Routine? I don’t think I’d consider it a routine warning.”

Earlier, during opening remarks, Aysta rattled off his rehearsed lines, citing the 100,000 square miles of infrastructure Duke protects on behalf of more than 10 million customers, increased monitoring of substations and an ongoing “review of all assets” and “rapid response protocols”.

After the question about the DHS alert of November 30 — released three days before the Moore County attack — Aysta made a fatal mistake, inferring that safeguarding of such a vast network is an ongoing effort.

“I’m not going to buy that ,” Palmer said. “That you can’t protect (substations). I’m talking about 24/7 surveillance with someone sitting in an office. I don’t think you do that. You didn’t take additional steps (ahead of December 3) to secure your infrastructure.”

Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-8th) pressed witness William Ray, director of the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management, about his interactions with Duke Energy. Ray said Duke “has been a good partner” but when asked specifically about the December 3 attacks and Duke’s response May declined to provide an answer.

Although he was not a witness, Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields was more direct than May when asked a similar question about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s outreach following the December 3 incident. Fields told Raleigh television camera crews after the hearing concluded that the FBI let him down in the aftermath of the attacks.

Aysta was non-committal on any number of security solutions proposed by panel members. Rep. Hudson asked him about emerging microgrid technology, whereupon Astay said he would get back to Hudson. (A microgrid is a self-contained electrical network that allows organizations to generate their own electricity on-site. It’s a good guess Duke Energy will always protect its monopoly and resist an autonomous solution).

Aysta squirmed when asked by Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-9th) if it was possible to stockpile transformers to mitigate supply chain delays after infrastructure damage occurs. “We’d definitely engage in a conversation,” Aysta said.

Residents and news camera crews in Pinehurst Village Hall on June 16, 2023.

Another witness provided by far the most inane testimony of the morning. N.C. State assistant professor Jordan Kern launched into a climate change lecture, dismissing the hearing’s focus on grid security because, after all, most power outages are caused by extreme weather.

And what causes extreme weather? Climate change, he said. So rather than fixate on infrastructure, Kern admonished, let’s talk abut “more reliance” on wind and solar energy.

Kern advised that “distributed solar energy offers unique solutions for improving grid resiliency” and said that assessing the “plausibility” of the nation’s power system in the future depends on embracing alternate sources.

Kern was asked no further direct questions and after the hearing concluded was seen driving away in a hybrid electric Toyota Prius. Even Prof. Solar and Wind apparently isn’t ready to put his faith in an all-electric vehicle.

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